More taxi cabs are traveling the streets of Cheektowaga and occasionally are being used in the commission of crimes.
That’s the reason town police say they want to know who’s behind the wheel and who owns the cabs.
The town put on the books in 1985 a local law requiring owners and drivers be licensed. Apparently, it is largely ignored. Only one license currently is on file, according to the town clerk’s office. Maybe that’s because there are no penalties for violating the law,
Now a proposal before town lawmakers would change all of that, and it would cover taxi and livery service to, from and within the entire town, including the airport and the portions of Depew and Sloan within town limits. The airport and village portions aren’t part of the existing law.
The proposal would require drivers of livery vehicles, such as limousines, to keep records of the name, address and phone number of each passenger, as well as where each fare is picked up. That’s in addition to standard information required for all taxi fares: identifying the points of origin and destination and the charge.
Some of those provisions raised red flags for John A. Curr III, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s regional office, who reviewed the proposal at the request of The Buffalo News.
“There are a few parts on there that are consistent with what they do in New York City,” Curr said, citing a new provision that requires police background checks on drivers.
“What really, really troubles us is this form requirement ... where they want passengers’ information. That’s way over the line,” Curr said. “We don’t need to tell the police where we are going ... in our own cars. They don’t have the authority to collect that information from us; they should not require taxi drivers to do so.”
Curr also questioned a new requirement regarding the cleanliness of vehicles.
“There’s no standard under the law for this stuff,” said Curr, who questioned whether a dirty car means someone’s permit will be revoked. “Is this a way to screen out business?”
Cheektowaga police say more accountability is needed.
“We want to make sure that people being driven ... are being represented by legitimate cab companies,” police Lt. Steven Berecz said.
And though the new law has been in the works for months, its provisions are virtually unknown by those it would affect.
“I heard there was something pending,” Gerald Chiarmonte, vice president of Airport Taxi Service, said last week. “We’re licensed by the City of Buffalo. I don’t know whether it would apply to us or not.”
At a public hearing last week, Berecz said many taxi drivers are operating with suspended licenses and there have been numerous hit-and-run accidents. He also mentioned that cabs have been used in the commission of crimes.
“Over the years, we have noticed that sometimes we do have a shoplifter that does hop into a cab,” Berecz explained in a later interview. “We are unable to identify it.”
There’s also a problem with unlicensed cabs.
“There’s no monitoring. There’s no meters,” the lieutenant said. “We just don’t know who’s been operating those vehicles.”
The existing law requires that information for owner and driver licenses.
The proposed legislation substitutes “permit” for license.
Owners and drivers still would need to obtain and pay for them annually. The fee would increase from $20 to $25 per vehicle for owners, while drivers would have to pay $25, an increase of $20.
Council Member Jim Rogowski proposed that owners who also are drivers pay a single fee. “Other than that, I think this is fair,” Rogowski said during the public hearing. “If you’re not licensed in the town, then you’re not welcome in the town.”
The single fee for an owner/driver will be in place when the Town Board votes on the proposal early next month, according to Deputy Town Attorney Jeffrey Whiting, who worked with Town Clerk Alice Magierski in drafting the legislation, which he said incorporates suggestions by police.
The existing rate structure has been eliminated entirely. “It just didn’t make any sense for us to be telling cab companies what their rates are,” Whiting said.
And a new section sets penalties: a fine up to $500 for each violation, per day, with three convictions within 18 months possibly resulting in a permit’s suspension or revocation. Owners or drivers found operating under that status faces escalating fines, per offense, that top off at a maximum of $1,000 for the third.
Letters will be sent to all cab companies after the law is adopted, according to an employee of the town clerk’s office.
At last week’s hearing, Julie Kaska of Depew wanted to know how the town is going to find out if cabbies at Buffalo Niagara International Airport are licensed.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has a long-standing agreement with the Independent Taxicab Association – better known as Airport Taxi Service – to provide service from the airport.
“We have a contract for exclusive rights that only allows cabbies within this association to pick up people at the airport,” explained C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the NFTA. While other cab services may drop off passengers, only those from Airport Taxi are allowed transport from it.
Christopher McGrath, whose car service is offered through an online classified advertising website, learned that the hard way. He was fined $90 this past summer after responding to repeated calls from a man who said he needed a ride from the airport.
“When I got there he was on his cellphone and walking around in front of [my] car. Then a cop in a uniform showed up and put a gun in my face,” said McGrath, who insists he was set up.
“I told him I didn’t know this was illegal,” he said. “I was just trying to help.”
As for the proposed taxi cab law, McGrath said: “These types of laws make criminal(s) out of good, upright, hardworking people like me.”